Beginnings are important for television programs. You need to keep fickle eyes glued to the channel. Beginnings are not as important for a film. You already got their money, so you’ve got their attention for at least a little while. Endings are the vital component for a film. This is how you leave the audience. The Blair Witch Project was a monotonous slog, but it had a killer climax/conclusion. People left the theater reeling and talking about the film like it was a masterpiece. I thought Paranormal Activity was both better done and scarier than BWP, but the ending was trite and retarded. The film made plenty of money, but there was little talk of it being a masterpiece; most people talked about the film as though it simply got lucky. Presumably you can see where I’m going with this. The Housemaid has a shit ending, which serves to undermine all the hard work the rest of the film did, and did well.
The Housemaid is a Korean remake of a 1960 Korean film of the same name, from director Kim Ki-young. I’ve never seen the original film, but it was a seminal work in Korea, and Martin Scorsese helped restore it for a special presentation at Cannes in 2008, so I expect it is pretty decent. Director Im Sang-soo’s remake does not seem very faithful, even just based on the short summary of the original I read on Wikipedia. But that’s neither here nor there. Whether it does justice or insult to the original, I can’t say, but judged on its own terms, Im Sang-soo has crafted a sophisticated and very sexy work.
The film’s set-up is old hat. A naive young woman, Eun-yi (Secret Sunshine‘s Jeon Do-yeon), is hired by a wealthy couple as a live-in maid. Aside from cleaning, her duties are also to play nanny to the couple’s young daughter, and aid the pregnant wife, Hae Ra (Seo Woo), while the husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), is away for his long work hours. Eun-yi works under the tutelage, and domineering/judgmental eye of Hae Ra’s longterm live-in maid, Miss Cho (Yoon Yeo-jeong). Eun-yi is vibrant and a warm presence in the house. She’s also sexy and cute, which draws the leers of Hoon. In turn, Hoon, with his fancy wine sipping and classical piano skillz, inspires a bit of innocent puppy love in the housemaid. Soon Eun-yi is drawing more than just leers from Hoon, when he drunkenly visits her bedroom during a family vacation.
At this point in the film everything is dandy. The acting is topnotch all around. Our lead, Do-yeon, is adorable and effortlessly sexy – just a joy to watch. The film looks great, and is well staged. But things start to get really interesting after Hoon seduces Eun-yi. For one thing, when I hear that I’m about to watch a dramatic-thriller about a housemaid, I just assume the film is going to be in the same vein as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But the film’s big pleasant surprise is that Eun-yi isn’t a sinister homewrecker pretending to be naive and sweet. She really is. This isn’t about an interloper becoming a destructive force on a happy family, but the inverse. Without giving too much away, the story kicks into top gear when Hae Ra and her mother (Park Ji-young) learn of Hoon and Eun-yi’s affair and begin systematically trying to destroy the poor girl.
The Housemaid is very much about class divide. Not so much in the financial sense, but psychologically. Here the extremely wealthy exist at a vaulted plain of privilege that essentially makes them all sociopaths. This plays out significantly more interesting than if any of our characters were simply “evil.” Hae Ra becomes wicked and petty, yet there is some sympathy, because she is a woman scorned. Hoon, who should get zero sympathy, as he was the catalyst of all this, turns almost weirdly likable towards the end as his sociopathic personality starts to seem like its own bizarre naivety. Hitting the nail right on the head, Hae Ra’s mother – the only 100% unsympathetic character – gives her daughter an Ayn Randian speech about how it is important to let Hoon do whatever he wants, because he is a great man (ie, super rich).
The best character is the film is Miss Cho, with Yeo-jeong giving the film’s best performance as well. Cho is a complex character. Embittered and jaded from a lifetime of service with these apathetic people, she also has a son who has just become an attorney and joined the proper class of Korean society. It is clear her son’s assent was aided in some fashion by Hae Ra’s mother. So Cho is in-dept to these people for her son’s new life, yet trapped with them in her own life. Each night ends with her getting drunk, often jabbering angry rants to the family alone in her room. She seems to know what is coming for Eun-yi, but is too detached to bother stopping it. Only once things get out of hand does she start to feel guilty, and make some vain attempts to help the poor girl.
The Housemaid was well on its way to being the first great film of 2011. I was already thinking it could likely find its way on my Top 15 next December. Then, in the last five minutes of its run-time, the film manages to shit the bed with such explosive abdominal force that it was frankly impressive. In just two scenes the film undoes the unwaveringly good effort it had built up. Jarring shock endings can work, but only when they aren’t completely left-field. Taxi Driver and Chinatown have unexpected, jarring endings, but they are in keeping with the tone of the film. In The Housemaid, director Im Sang-soo decides – quite needlessly – to go for something extra and big at the end. It’s like watching a gymnast pull off a nearly perfect routine, then, once they’ve already locked the gold medal, during their final dismount they decide “Hmm, maybe I should throw in a quick front flip,” then landing on their head, breaking their neck, and dying on mat.
There is a chance I could have soldiered through the misguide, jarring penultimate scene – as the film’s opening scene is clearly meant to thematically bond with the climax – but the film’s resolution almost feels like a fuck you to the audience. Completely breaking with the rest of the film, Im Sang-soo shoots the scene in an arch and knowing style, like a Wes Anderson finale, minus the British invasion classic rock on the soundtrack. It is as if he is revealing that the whole film were sort of a self-reflexive joke. Which, I assure you, the film is not.
I think The Housemaid is still worth seeing. I’d almost recommend stopping your viewing before the very end, as despite the fucked up bit the film ultimately throws at you, I frankly thought it was more messed up before. Quieter and subtextual moments are often stronger and more disturbing than in-your-face obviousness. Such was the case here. Hopefully, with me making such a big deal out of the ending, you’ll probably have a much easier time with it than I did. Sometimes knowing something stupid is in the pipeline allows you to successfully dodge it. Though I don’t know if that is possible here. But good luck.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars